Forgive the blunt title of this blog post, but the point needs to be made in no uncertain terms.
The Zenit News Agency has interviewed John Medaille, author of Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More, which calls for a direct if brief (more later, perhaps – I have yet to read the book) response from this Catholic defender of the market economy.
Whether or not Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate is a boon to “alternative economics” as the Zenit interviewer claims, the market economy has come under attack from just about every corner since the global financial crisis of 2008. It’s easy enough to kick a system when it’s down, even when there’s plenty of blame to go around. Some critics, however, have been suffering through many decades of capitalist triumphalism to get their revenge. Among these are the distributists.
As I’ve noted in some recent blog posts, distributism has its origin in the writings of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc who, for the brilliant Catholic apologists they were, seem to have known very little about economics. As the Zenit interviewer remarks, “many are skeptical, and believe distributism is simply romantic agrarianism, or worse, just an aesthetic sensibility, without any real practical solutions.”
Identified as a “neo-distributist,” Medaille wants to make up for the deficiencies of his fathers. He takes economics more seriously and argues that distributism is the “truly” free-market system compared to capitalism or socialism, though it should be remembered that Chesterton and Belloc also supported distributism in the name of economic liberty, private property and less interference from the state. Be that as it may. The question is ultimately whether distributism, neo- or paleo-, lives up to its claims as an “alternative” or “third-way.”
Medaille starts by critiquing the related notions that economics is a physical, rather than a human, science and that economics has nothing to do with ethics, especially justice. I don’t know who he is debating here. When I studied economics as an undergrad at a large secular university and worked as an international economist for the U.S. government, I may have come across such types, though no one was so brash to say that ethics didn’t matter. But it definitely does not describe those of us who appreciate Austrian economics and promote a Catholic understanding of the market economy.
More to the point, the question is how economics as a human science is to “practice” justice. How exactly can an economic system ensure justice between a buyer and a seller who come to a common agreement? Doesn’t the virtue of justice require just persons? And isn’t legal justice the purview of the state that legislates against force, fraud, theft, etc.?
For an example, Medaille says that, in matters of trade, foreign financing of domestic consumption is impoverishing to both parties and presumably unjust. While I could be convinced of its imprudence or undesirability in certain situations, I fail to see why or how such financing is always and everywhere unjust and therefore deserving of a blanket condemnation.
Medaille then states his case for distributism as the truly free-market system compared to capitalism and socialism. He makes the obvious point that any system that concentrates power is bound to leave individuals worse off and less free. Socialism is clearly guilty as charged but does capitalism necessarily lead to greater concentrations of economic power? The problem of concentrated power mainly occurs when corporations and the state work together – a.k.a. corporatism – which hardly describes a market economy worth defending and may even resemble the distributist model.
A truly free-market economy must allow free competition; it is only when capitalists collude to restrict competition that power is concentrated and freedom restricted. Yet this is precisely what guilds seek to do. Or have the neo-distributists distanced themselves from Chesterton and Belloc’s defense of guilds and critique of competition and advertising? I cannot tell.
Medaille is on firmer ground when he reminds us that the government should be doing less and that government interference often leads to the concentration of power. But he then ruins his case by looking to the state and trade associations to collude, which seems to be acceptable so long as it all happens at a local level.
Medaille explicitly proposes using tax policy, property law, licensing authorities and other political means to the advantage of some over others. But how is local government somehow exempt from draconian or overly restrictive interference? In fact, the history of republican government is full of such examples, especially in cases where an obstinate minority asserts its rights against the majority. The concentration of power often begins “small”, “locally” or “popularly” and grows from there; see Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom for a well-known demonstration of the phenomenon.
In the end, I am left wondering just what the distributists think is so good about economic freedom. As far as I can tell, it is not about using our God-given skills and talents through the division of labor for the benefit of all, and I see absolutely no mention of poverty reduction, longer life expectancies, medical and technological advances, the social virtues encouraged by commerce, and other goods brought about by economic freedom. The distributist vision of economic liberty and private property seems to feed a misguided notion of self-sufficiency and pride that is as antithetical to Catholic social teaching as materialism and consumerism.
Furthermore, the neo-distributist case for free markets is riddled with the same contradictions and problems that plagued its predecessor. Making the case against socialism and a mythical laissez-faire state of affairs is simply not good enough these days. Instead of urging serious Catholics and others who take ethics seriously to seek new economic models or “lifestyles,” why not encourage them to understand how markets work and what moral freedom and responsibility require from us as citizens and in the marketplace?